During my trip to the Basque region of Spain and France, I had to drive north to the southwest corner of France to see the tiny spa town of Eugénie-les-Bains. It is not to be missed.
This town has long been celebrated for its healing spring waters and tranquil valley setting, and as we coasted into town on a winding road lit golden by the late afternoon sun, I could see why thousands of people have been relaxing, easing their pains, and “taking the water” here for years.
Acclaimed chef Michel Guérard gives folks another reason to make the trek here to improve their health: cuisine minceur, a form of healthy cooking that Guérard invented that still lives on in his Michelin 3-star restaurant, Les Pres d’Eugenie. It’s basically cooking in a traditional French method, but with lower-calorie or higher-nutrition substitutions. Think fish steamed in a concentrated, fragrant spring vegetable broth instead of pan-fried in bread crumbs with butter. Fresh, light, satisfying and French are the defining words for Guérard’s unique, form-enhancing cuisine.
The town was simply beautiful, with one quiet road leading through the small valley floor. Small rock and sandy paths led off each side of the road into gardens and trees and old stone churches and houses. Water fountains, flowers, lawns of grass and pastel-painted shutters on the windows surrounded us as we pulled into La Maison Rose, the most affordable of Michel’s three lodgings in town, Les Pres d’Eugenie (which, with his two restaurants, seemed to take up one entire side of town).
I felt such relaxation and peace here that I began to drink in long, slow, deep breaths of the fresh spring air, and to feel slightly better about us. Hope was peeking through the French countryside, and we would dine well tonight!
The main house held the gourmet restaurant, while a simple restored farmhouse held Guérard’s rustic restaurant, La Ferme aux Grives — built to look like his childhood home, with food cooked over a fire in a big hearth in the main room like his mother used to cook. We chose the gourmet menu in the white and beige-colored dining room. It was the most beautiful and peaceful dinner setting I had ever seen! I could barely see any other diners for the nooks of tables and gorgeous flowers everywhere, and the waiters excelled in hushed voices and silent steps. Michel himself was also here, with a constant smile and a warm handshake. It was so lovely to meet him!
The sun was setting and a warm breeze wafted in. I felt positively serene and agreeable to anything that came my way tonight. And the first course was a mushroom soup, with a “cloud” and truffles on top, see above. Sigh.
The wine also helped. This French wine, 2008 Château Bouscassé, Les Jardins de Bouscassé, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, was the most local thing on the menu. Literally. Our waiter said it was the wine made closest to the town. The beautifully balanced wine was 80% Petite Courbou and 20% Petit Manseng, two grapes indigenous to southwest France, and it paired very well with all courses in this meal and the elegant restaurant itself. Beguiling and lovely in its acidity and floral-ness, understated with the promise of more to come, this wine from this small corner of the world was deserving of much more attention than it ever receives.
Then steamed lobster with butter and herbs, plus duck breast and foie gras with a trio of citrus sauces. So delicious! And so light!
And, of course, his signature local fish with fresh spring vegetables and a fresh, savory consommé.
And the cheese course: gooey French cheeses are the best antidote to anything that ails you, including affairs of the heart.
The desserts were the best: this was a lemon soufflé with a brûlée top. Gorgeous on the plate and heaven in the mouth.
I love rhubarb (reminds me of both my Kansan grandmothers) and our menu happened to have a Festival of Rhubarb listed! What luck, to enjoy a plate of rhubarb tarts and pastries along with a baked bread pudding with rich, creamy rhubarb ice cream. It was a dream.
I was thankful and full and resigned. This elegant dinner would be my last real pleasure before heading home. And I would always remember it with a smile and a long, deep breath.